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History against Novak Djokovic in 2012

12/21/2011

We know that the calendar-year Grand Slam is the Holy Grail of men's tennis. It's such a rare feat, having been accomplished just once during the Open era. Forty-two years ago, Rod Laver pulled off the remarkable accomplishment, and since then, the true mark of all-time single-season excellence has been the three-major year. In the past four decades, the feat has been accomplished six times, by five different players -- most recently, of course, by Novak Djokovic in 2011.

Because this is a "what have you done for me lately" world, the question now is whether Djokovic can keep up his Grand Slam pace in 2012. If we use history as a guide, it's going to be exceedingly difficult. Only one of the previous four tri-Slammers has repeated, while two of them went 0-for-4 the following year. Which is the most likely direction for Djokovic? Let's roll a little videotape.

Jimmy Connors pulled off the first triple after Laver, in 1974. The only one he didn't win was the French Open, but he didn't lose it, either; Connors was banned for playing World Team Tennis that year. Connors had his revenge when he steamrolled an aging Ken Rosewall in the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals. By the end of the year, some observers believed he would dominate for the next decade.

By the following Wimbledon, Connors may have believed it himself. Despite a leg injury, he demolished Roscoe Tanner in the semifinals while strutting like a "miniature Tarzan," in the words of one writer. Unbeknownst to Jimbo, though, his opponent in the final, Arthur Ashe, was watching all of it from the locker room. He knew what he couldn't do against Connors: Beat him with pace, the way Tanner was trying to do. So
Ashe went in the other direction, frustrating Connors with dinks and slices in the final, and in the process setting the template for how to play Connors for the rest of his career. Manolo Orantes did the same in the U.S. Open final. One year after his three-Slam season, Jimbo had been figured out, and shut out.

This seems like an unlikely scenario for Djokovic in 2012. Although he has had his mental and physical struggles, as well as problems with individual shots like the serve and forehand, he doesn't seem vulnerable to any one style of play. Djokovic is solid all around, from both wings and with the return especially. He doesn't win with weapons as much as he does with lack of weaknesses. It's hard to see an Ashe-like kryptonite on the horizon.

It took 14 years for another man to match Connors' feat. Mats Wilander's miracle year came in 1988, when he added a backhand slice, edged Pat Cash in a five-setter in Melbourne, topped Henri Leconte at the French, and finally tracked down and passed Ivan Lendl at the U.S. Open. But that was basically it for Wilander. He said he felt like he had accomplished all of his goals that season, and was unable to muster up the desire and discipline to do it again. He never reached another Slam final.

Wilander's 1988, as fabulous as it was, now looks like the sport's biggest one-off. Greater champions than Wilander -- Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi -- never matched what the Swede pulled off that season.

At first glance, Djokovic's 2011 could end up being something similar. Before this year, he was an entrenched third in the ATP's pecking order, with just one major on his résumé. Is he the Wilander of his era? I don't think so. Mats lost because he lost motivation. He had done what he came to do. Djokovic was raised to believe he was going to be No. 1. He hasn't done all he came to do, and a decline in motivation seems unlikely.

The past two tri-Slammers were Djokovic's main rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. If Djokovic is looking for inspiration, he should look to Federer. He followed up his first three-major year, 2004, by going 81-4 the next season. The second time he won three, 2006, he did it again in 2007, despite the presence of Nadal. This is the standard that Djokovic labors under in 2012.

Is he the next Federer, the next long-term dominant champion? Eighty-one and four is a lot to ask; that's an even better year, record-wise, than Djokovic had this season. And having to do it with both Federer and Nadal still at his heels will make it doubly tough. Djokovic is not Wilander, but I don't think he's going to match Federer's peak four-year run, either.

Finally, there's the example of Nadal himself, who won three majors in 2010. The Spaniard didn't match it, for a very different reason than Connors or Wilander. Nadal was nearly as good in 2011, but he was surpassed by one player, Djokovic, who took his Wimbledon and U.S. Open crowns.

Is this a likely template for Djokovic? Well, there is this guy out there who was one point, and a couple of inches, from taking him out of the U.S. Open this year ...